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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Revisit sign ordinance? Let's not go there, committee tells Medlin

Posted by on Wed, Mar 3, 2010 at 4:43 PM

After a meeting of city and county elected officials, it doesn’t appear that the City Council or County Commissioners will be reconsidering the Durham’s 26-page ordinance on signage any time soon. When asked by Durham’s planning department whether it’s time to revisit the ordinance, Durham leaders vehemently answered, "No."

“I personally am not in favor of opening the sign ordinance,” said City Councilwoman Diane Catotti, at Wednesday’s meeting of Durham’s Joint City-County Planning Committee, for which she is chairwoman. “I think it's a lot cleaner in terms of litigation to support the sign ordinance in place. I do fear litigation. It's a lengthy and costly process and I don't think I have to remind any of you that the city has significant litigation still pending. I'll just say ‘lacrosse.’”

Catotti commented that sign litigation is a prominent form of action taken against governments, and that Durham itself went through a nearly 10-year battle over a signage lawsuit from the 1980s and 1990s that cost the city nearly $1.5 million.

County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow also advised against revisiting the sign ordinance. She said she was on the original task force that gave a lot of time and consideration to the rules when they were developed and enacted in the 1990s.

“I’ve been there and done that, and it’s a hefty task,” said Reckhow, who serves as vice chairwoman of the Joint City-County Planning Committee. “[The ordinance] may sound old, but we brought in a nationally recognized firm and did a very thoughtful review. … What we came up with 20 years ago was a compromise and a result of a lot of give and take between people who wanted more stringent rules, people who wanted more lenient rules, and ended up with this policy.”

Despite the committee’s reluctance to revisit the larger sign policy, the boards must soon consider a formal request to change one small part of the city-county sign ordinance—specifically the legal language of Durham’s Unified Development Ordinance concerning billboards.

This is just another step in a long timeline and debate over billboards in the city and county of Durham, and just whether there should be new policy allowing them to be updated, including the addition of digital billboards. Fairway Outdoor Advertising, a Georgia-based billboard company that owns 44 of the 92 billboards in Durham (according to numbers obtained today), has paid $3,000 to have the city and county consider a formal application for a change in the UDO. Attorney Patrick Byker, of K&L Gates, is the attorney representing Fairway’s interests. If Fairway sounds familiar, it’s because the company has also made significant campaign contributions in recent elections, and also has contributed ad space for local government departments and non-profits.

Fairway’s application is being considered by city-county planning staff right now, and will be sent to the Durham Planning Commission for a public hearing at its April 13 meeting, Planning Director Steve Medlin said Wednesday. The Planning Commission advises the city and county governments on planning matters. After the Planning Commission weighs in, the matter will go before both the City Council and Board of County Commissioners.

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